US Gov't Urged to Challenge Terrorist's Release

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Germany's decision to free a Lebanese terrorist who murdered an American sailor during a 1985 hijacking is prompting calls for the U.S. government to get involved.

Scholars and commentators say Washington should demand that Lebanon hand over Mohammed Ali Hamadi, who returned to his home country after Germany released him last month.

It should also condemn the German decision, and press the new government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a firmer line in the fight against terrorism.

The Hizballah terrorist was set free 18 years after he was sentenced to "life" imprisonment for hijacking a TWA airliner and killing Robert Stethem, a 23-year-old petty officer in the U.S. Navy (see related story).

The State Department confirmed shortly before Christmas that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had earlier appealed to the German authorities not to free Hamadi, to no avail.

The U.S. first applied for Hamadi's extradition when he was arrested in Frankfurt in 1987. Germany refused and put him on trial.

The U.S. was unable to apply again for his extradition after learning late last year that he was to be freed early, a State Department spokesman said.

"Our extradition treaty does not permit Germany to extradite a fugitive to the United States on the same charges for which he has already been tried and convicted in Germany."

Heritage Foundation scholar Niles Gardiner said Wednesday the administration and both Houses of Congress should strongly condemn German's decision.

When President Bush meets with Merkel at the White House on January 11, he should express his strong disapproval and seek an explanation.

Bush should also urge Berlin to take "a more robust role" in the campaign against terrorism, and press for European governments to extradite terrorist suspects wanted in the U.S., and to outlaw Hizballah as a terrorist organization, Gardiner said in a memo.

He said Congress should demand that Lebanon surrender Hamadi for trial in the U.S., and the administration should apply "immense pressure" on Lebanon to hand over him and any other terror suspects it is sheltering. Three other suspects in the TWA hijacking -- including Hizballah security chief Imad Fayez Mugniyah - remain at large.

"If Lebanon does not agree to requests for extradition, the U.S. should seize Hamadi and other wanted terrorists under its policy of 'rendition.'"

The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Lebanon.

Terrorist list

Counterterrorism specialist Michael Kraft argues that the U.S. government should consider placing Lebanon on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism over the Hamadi episode.

"Lebanon provides sanctuary to a number of terrorists sought by the United States, as well as allowing terrorist groups to operate from its soil," he wrote in a recent article.

Kraft, formerly of the State Department's office of the coordinator for counterterrorism, noted that one of the grounds for designating a country as a terror sponsor is the provision of sanctuary - from prosecution or extradition - for terrorists.

Another criteria used by the Secretary of State in making such decisions is the provision of safe houses or headquarters for terrorists.

He said groups like Hizballah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine "have long enjoyed the ability to operate from Lebanese territory."

Apart from the perpetrators of the 1985 TWA hijacking, "the U.S. also wants to bring to justice those who kidnapped and killed American hostages during the 1980s and blew up the Marine Barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut."

Almost 300 people were killed in the 1983 bombings.

In the past, Kraft said, Lebanon has "enjoyed a pass" because of Syria's involvement in and control over parts of the country where terrorists are largely based. With Syrian forces now removed from Lebanon, that reasoning fell away.

Although Lebanon has had its share of difficulties and was generally regarded as a friendly country, it "should be made aware that it is vulnerable to U.S counterterrorism laws and possible economic sanctions if it continues to harbor terrorists who killed Americans in cold blood," he said.

"Issuing statements from the State Department podium or sending demarches that the U.S. wants Hamadi is not enough."

Deal suspected

Adding to unhappiness over Germany's actions are suspicions that it may have released Hamadi early in return for the release by terrorists in Iraq of a German citizen, archaeologist Susanne Osthoff.

German officials in Iraq were negotiating for Osthoff's release, which was announced three days after Hamadi flew to Lebanon. German media speculated last month about a tradeoff, although the government officially denied any link between the two cases.

If a deal was struck, it wouldn't be the first time for Germany. The original U.S. request to have Hamadi extradited back in 1987 was understood to have been rejected, at least in part, because Hizballah at the time seized two German businessmen in Beirut and held them hostage, demanding that Germany not send Hamadi to the U.S.

Some media outlets' account of the 1987 background say Germany refused to extradite Hamadi because he could have been executed if convicted in a U.S. court of Stethem's murder.

But U.S. Court of Appeals Justice Stephen S. Trott has confirmed to that, in his then capacity as Associate Attorney-General, he signed a document for the German government in 1987, giving the assurance that Hamadi would not face the death penalty if convicted in the U.S.

Germany nonetheless refused to extradite.

In other reaction to Hamadi's release, the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S. issued a statement saying the alleged German "deal" would encourage Iraqi terrorists to take more hostages.

"Germany's hostage-for-terrorist swap marks the first time since 9/11 that a senior European ally has intentionally, and contrary to agreed policy, submitted to the demands of hostage takers by releasing a convicted terrorist," the Washington-based group said.

New York Daily News columnist Richard Chesnoff said if the Lebanese refuse to hand Hamadi over, "maybe we should take a lesson from the Israelis and find him ourselves."

See earlier stories:
German Trade-off Suspected in Release of Terrorist Killer (Dec. 22, 2005)
Hizballah Emerges as Potential Issue for Bush's EU Trip (Feb. 18, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow